The Jews in America

The Atlantic looks back at a time when country clubs were restricted, names were Anglicized, and Jews were struggling to find their place in American society.

Early Jewish American Leaders
JEWISH LEADERS gather for a portrait in 1922. From left to right: Nathan Straus, co-owner of Macy's; Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court justice; Stephen Samuel Wise, leading Reform rabbi and founding secretary of the American Federation of Zionists

American pluralism has always been a work in progress. The phrase “all men are created equal”—abstractly beautiful on paper—is continually being stretched and prodded into solid reality. Atlantic authors have always played an active role in this process, shaping public opinion and reflecting society’s shortcomings. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the magazine followed the struggles of Jewish Americans who were greeted, then shunned, and finally accepted into mainstream society. 

In 1870, the biographer James Parton published a gracious article entitled “Our Israelitish Brethren,” introducing the foreign-seeming Jewish people to their Gentile neighbors. The Jews, Parton pointed out, had many noble qualities: although “singularly adapted by natural disposition to agriculture,” they had adjusted brilliantly to city life. Their Sabbath, despite all its austere laws, was a festive occasion marked by poetic blessings and moments of pure abandon. “The Sabbath to the Jews,” Parton wrote admiringly, “is wholly joyous!”

At the time of Parton’s article, the gulf between Jews and Christians was, in fact, rapidly narrowing: most American Jews were Central European, and the Reform Judaism they practiced had a strong Germanic flavor. Parton described a typical service at Temple Immanuel, a Reform Temple that he deemed “the most costly and picturesque edifice in the Fifth Avenue, New York”:

The interior, which is bright with gilding and many-hued fresco, is arranged so much like one of our churches, that no one would suspect its Oriental character. Men and women sit together; the men are uncovered and wear no scarf; there is an organ…; some of the prayers are read in English, others in German, others in Hebrew…. A stranger coming in by chance… might suppose he had strayed into an Episcopal church where three professors from Oxford were conducting the service to a style recently introduced in England, but not yet known in America.

Parton could not have foreseen the series of violent events—launched by the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II—that would soon bring nearly 2 million new Jewish refugees to American shores. By the turn of the century, the Jewish demographic had shifted dramatically. What had once been a small, assimilating minority was now a mass of impoverished Eastern Europeans whose traditions seemed more foreign than ever.

“The Social Disability of the Jew,” a 1908 piece by a Chicago-based doctor named Edwin J. Kuh, homed in on what many Americans of the time saw as a serious concern. Kuh, a thoroughly assimilated Jew and self-proclaimed atheist, lamented that new Jewish immigrants were rising in rank without learning American manners. Doting Jewish parents, he wrote, were only exacerbating the problem: instead of encouraging their children to become strong, athletic Americans, they were raising a generation that was physically weak, mentally precocious, and thoroughly spoiled. Such people, Kuh insisted, deserved to be barred from all respectable institutions.
Do my Jewish readers wonder that the doors of summer hotels, where our parvenus sprawl in shameless familiarity, are closed to them and their people? I have not a single word of defense for the vulgar expressions of Jewish people in public places. These upstarts bring the blush of shame to the face of every decent Jew…. The exclusion of Jews from college fraternities is another case in point. In many frank interviews with fraternity men we have received the impression that they do not want Jewish boys because of their bad manners. This is a sane and commendable stand…. You cannot do the Jews and the community at large a greater service than by excluding the undesirable members of their race.

Not all assimilated Jews applauded the proliferation of “restricted” restaurants and hotels. In 1924, The Atlantic published “The Jew and the Club,” a piece by an anonymous Jewish author tired of explaining to his children why their family was prohibited from entering so many local suburban establishments. Although the writer himself was a graduate of “the most famous of American universities,” he found himself unable to attend Alumni Club meetings, “for the meeting-place is the University Club, to which I am ineligible.” The author voiced his concern that all of this exclusivity would force Jews to band together all the more tightly and form their own all-Jewish clubs and fraternities. “My children,” he noted, “… are likely to associate much more exclusively than I do with people of Jewish origin.”

This prediction largely came to pass: over the next generation, Jewish organizations multiplied, and occasional attempts to build bridges collapsed. In 1934, The Atlantic published a poignant essay by a non-Jew who unwittingly joined a Jewish fraternity. The writer, international correspondent Vincent Sheean, recalled his first year at the University of Chicago, when he eagerly accepted a pledge invitation from his hero “A. B.,” editor of the Maroon, the campus paper. On the day of his initiation, however, a pretty freshman named Lucy let him in on the shameful secret: “‘Look at them, idiot; look at them. They have noses, hair, eyes, features, mouths, all different from anybody else. Can you honestly tell me you don't know that ___is a Jew?’”

Sheean soon learned that he was part of a hopeful experiment: a traditionally Jewish fraternity had recently voted to open its doors to all students, and Sheean and his roommate were to be the first non-Jewish initiates. Overwhelmed, the two boys ran away to Aurora, only to be followed by a confused A. B. who wanted to know what had gone wrong. In the end, A. B. not only accepted their decision to leave the fraternity but went on to help Sheean in his career at the Maroon. Looking back, Sheean declared A. B. the most admirable person he had known in Chicago.

He could not have been more than twenty, but he was invested, in my eyes at least, with the wisdom of the ages. He had apparently founded great hopes for the fraternity on both of us, and our desertion was a blow to him. He had a sense of justice; he could see that there was something to be said on our side, and, having accepted the monstrous situation, he made the best of it.

Throughout the 1930s, as European anti-Semitism grew increasingly sinister, Atlantic contributors began to take on previously taboo subjects such as Jewish-Gentile intermarriage. In 1939, the magazine published the provocatively titled essay “I Married a Jew.” The anonymous author identified herself as the daughter of German Christian immigrants and her husband as non-practicing Jew from a large Orthodox family. The two were deeply in love, enjoying a union that was “calm as the night, deep as the sea.” However, problems did occasionally arise.

So strong are family ties, and the memory of a happy thirteen-month sojourn in the Vaterland a few years ago, that I frequently find myself trying to see things from the Nazis’ point of view and to find excuses for the things they do—to the dismay of our liberal-minded friends and the hurt confusion of my husband.

As she told the story of her marriage, the author displayed a remarkable blend of wifely sympathy and historical shortsightedness. On the one hand, she praised her husband’s generosity, wit, and open-mindedness, declaring Jewish husbands “the best in the world!” Yet when the subject turned to the Nazis, she gently ridiculed him for viewing Hitler as “a little, strutting monster whose sole purpose and pleasure in life is to flog, imprison, impoverish, humiliate, and plague Israel.” Instead, she urged him to take “the long view” and recognize that “a hundred years hence, the world will no more call Hitler a swine for expelling the Jews than it does Edward I of England.”

To the author’s mind, her husband’s “Jewish hypersensitivity” betrayed a widespread problem: the tendency for Jews, even secular ones, to put their Jewishness before the interests of their nation. “Instead of turning their faces to the Wailing Wall every time sparks of the ancient friction catch fire, they must make some practical and rational effort to adapt their ways more graciously to the Gentile pattern,” she wrote, “since they prefer to live in Gentile lands.” Although this solution had already proven tragically fruitless in Berlin, it seemed to hold tenuously in the author’s household. As long as her husband was away from his boisterous family, “his Jewishness drop[ped] away from him like a cloak,” and he was able to be what he truly was: first an American, second a Jew.

For at least one Atlantic contributor, the most opaque cloak of all was the Jewish surname, and in an anonymous 1948 piece, he explained his reasons for shedding it. In “I Changed My Name,” the author described how he and his younger brother had scanned the Manhattan telephone book, looking for an ethnically ambiguous name to replace their distinctly Jewish one. The moment he adopted the new name, doors swung open, and he was welcomed into society as a true American. To those anti-Semites who continued to eye him suspiciously, the author had this to say: “I won’t make your work easier, like a sheep considerately running up the plank into the slaughterhouse. Try and find me.”

Two months later, The Atlantic published a response from David L. Cohn, a Mississippi-born Jewish scholar. In “I’ve Kept My Name,” Cohn explained that he preferred being easy to classify. “Bearing an unmistakably Jewish name,” he wrote, “I am spared the crude comments of virulent anti-Semites, for even they retain a modicum of manners in my presence.” He was not invited to join clubs from which Jews were barred, and he was saved the fear of being branded an impostor. Most of all, he counted his decision as a vote of confidence in all the good-hearted Americans who had always treated him without judgment or condescension. “I am accepted by my fellows as a human being,” Cohn wrote, “or I am rejected as a Jew.”

While Jews debated the right way to assert their American identity, non-Jewish authors continued to ponder “The Jewish Problem in America.” In his two-part 1941 essay of that name, Alfred Jay Nock, an influential libertarian, expressed concern that Jews were still failing to assimilate. The problem, he concluded, was that the Jews were essentially an Oriental people. When Jewish manners fell short of Occidental standards, Gentiles needed to understand that the Jew had spent centuries herding goats in Southern Palestine, “warlike and violent as all primitive herdsmen are.” Borrowing heavily from H. L. Mencken, Nock wrote that the common American “mass-man,” unlike the educated Occidental, would never fully grasp the Jews’ irreconcilable separateness. For this reason, he worried that the bulk of the population would always remain anti-Semitic, blaming all Jews at the slightest economic or social provocation.

The very next month, The Atlantic published a reply by James Marshall, pointedly titled “The Anti-Semitic Problem in America.” Marshall challenged Nock’s “Oriental” theory, pointing out that Gentiles, too, are descended from wild tribes. “Millennia of urban life have evidently not been enough to erase the herdsman from the Jew,” he wrote. “But if this be true, how can there be gentlemen in all of Europe?”

Even more troubling to Marshall was the idea of the “mass-man.” This notion, Marshall wrote, undermined the very bedrock of America. If all human beings—Jewish and Gentile, educated and working-class—could not be seen as distinct individuals, “then Jefferson and Lincoln and all who have quoted them were simple yokels, and Stalin and Hitler are right.” Marshall reminded his readers that all Americans faced the same challenge: accommodating diversity while forging unity.

The problem is not correctly stated as ‘the Jewish problem in America.’ Such a presentation is, in fact, destructive of our American conception of democracy…. If with our varying interests, capacities, and backgrounds we cannot have a common faith in democratic aims and make common cause of those ends through democratic procedures and mechanisms, then our American institutions will fall…. We know now that we can conquer starvation and epidemic; we know now that the ways of democracy can work.